New Tumblr Adventure — Let’s Go!

Happy New Year, friends! I have spent the weekend putting together a new Tumblr page.  The page you’re on will still be my main blog page, but I will post photos and who knows what else on Tumblr more frequently.

Please consider following me there?  Shall we tumble on Tumblr, okay?  Let’s go!

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Losing Momma and Maebelle

Before the crystal ball dropped in Time’s Square last year, before the bubbles from the champagne flute tickled my nose, I knew 2015 was going to be one hell of a year, a year of heartbreak and change and one I would never forget. In fact, I made a New Year’s resolution for 2015:  “Survive it!”

Some of you have asked about my absence from the pages of this blog over the past nine or so months. I’ve tried to keep an upbeat and somewhat comical tone to my posts, but there’s no way to spin it.  2015 has been tough. What is that old saying, “Life happens when you’re making other plans.”  Well, friends, I guess you could say I’ve been living life.

Our New Year’s Eve party was as festive as ever, but something wasn’t right with Maebelle, our 16-year-old poodle. She’d once been the life of our parties, begging to be carried, hugged, and loved. After our parties, I would slow dance with her for the last tune of the evening. Tonight, she seemed to wander and stagger through the forest of high heels. Ms. Taylor, her twin, had long stopped enjoying parties. When she ventured out of her little bed, she went around in circles, blind and deaf.

Charlie with Ms. Taylor and Maebelle

Maebelle liked to stay close to me while I was writing; Tallulah is keeping watch

Maebelle liked to stay close to me while I was writing; Tallulah is keeping watch

Charle and I picked these little girls when they could lie comfortably in the palm of our hands. For 16 years, through good times and bad, they had been the closest we would ever have to children. Maebelle and I had a connection that went way beyond that of a canine and human. She was almost a soulmate.

And so, three days into the new year, Charlie and I arrived at that place where all animal lovers eventually come.  That nagging question: Are we keeping these darlings alive for our own pleasure when their quality of life had waned?

With Dr. Moshell’s help, our little babies went to sleep in our arms; Maebelle in mine, Ms. Taylor in Charlie’s. For you who have been through this, I don’t have to describe the gut-wrenching grief that comes from deep within your soul.

Charlie and I rallied around each other, treasuring Tallulah, our 5-year-old poodle girl.  She is black. We call her Tallulah Blackhead.

I waited a few days before breaking the news to my mom, who lived across the state. She was Mother Teresa to stray canines and felines in her neighborhood. She understood that strong bond between humans and animals. Mom cried when I told her about her “grandchildren.” “Poor little darlings,” she sobbed.

When we left my parent’s house after Christmas a few weeks before, I think Mom knew she would never again see Maebelle and Ms. Taylor. Did she know that morning when she held the puppies tight that none of us would ever again have Christmas with her? Mom knew she was sick; we all did, we just wasn’t ready to go there.

Michael and Carol

Mom and me

Mom and me in a rare Georgia snowfall

Mom and me in a rare Georgia snowfall

In October 2013, Charlie and I spent two weeks in Italy, our favorite vacation spot. I talked with Mom every other day or so while we were away. She said she was still fatigued, but “doing okay.” The afternoon we arrived home, Mom called. “Michael, I found out what is wrong with me.  I have leukemia. I didn’t want to tell you while you were on your trip.”

Not leukemia exactly, but something called Myelodysplasia Syndrome (MDS), a disease of the bone marrow that destroys the number and quality of blood-forming cells. The doctor was somewhat encouraging. While not a candidate for a bone marrow transplant, Mom could have some quality of life with chemotherapy. That is, weekly chemo treatments for the rest of her life.

Mom was a determined fighter. A red-headed hairdresser since the early 1960s, she was one tough 71-year-old. Chemo was the way it went for awhile. Fatigue seemed to be the primary side effect. Then came the fluctuating blood counts: hemoglobin, platelets, red and white blood levels. A monthly blood transfusion boosted her energy level.

Mom on Christmas Day 2015 with Lucinda and FeFe

Mom on Christmas Day 2015 with Lucinda and FiFi

By Christmas, Mom was clearly suffering from this disease. She’d get out of bed in the morning for a hour or two. Extreme fatigue and pain would send her back to bed, sometimes for the rest of the day. As a family, we’d never been that good at communication, so we all exchanged looks.  We talked about Mom’s illness among ourselves. My Dad and me. My Grandmother and me. What’s happening to her?

Before we left to come home, Mom called me into her bedroom. She wanted to talk. “I don’t want to die,” she said. “I’ve got to take care of your daddy and momma. I’m going to fight, Michael.  I’m not giving up, but you know I may not make it.”  Mom laid out her final wishes. Cremation. A memorial service at the funeral home. An Episcopal service was okay, “but not too many candles and crosses.” For music, she wanted Willie Nelson and Elvis Presley — luckily, their CDs would suffice. And one more question. Would Charlie and I consider taking Pancho, Lucinda, and FiFi, her rescue pups that never left her side?

Not surprisingly, Mom’s condition continued worsening into the new year.  Despite rain, sleet, or snow, my mom, driven by her saints (Dad, my Aunt, Peggy, and other close friends), made the 30-mile trek to the clinic to have chemo and her blood and platelet transfusions.

Mom getting one of her many, many treatments

Mom getting one of her many, many treatments

The transfusions that kept her alive from week to week were ordered more frequently. Nose bleeds, extreme pain in her bones, and crippling fatigue continued. We talked by phone most every day. The tone in her voice was becoming weaker and more somber. Our conversations were getting shorter.  In mid-February, I called Dr. Malik about her condition. As prepared as I thought I was for his report, it came as a jolt. “Your mom is now in the struggling phase, the decline phase, and approaching Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML). I’m not throwing in the towel yet. There is one more treatment I want to try.”

In mid-March, Mom made the decision to close her beauty shop. Her customers had been loyal and had stuck by her. As hard as she tried, she no longer had the strength to keep going.

“Do you want to keep working?” I asked her.

In her weakest voice, she said, “I just want to lie down and go to sleep.”

Closing her business signaled a new chapter for Mom. She slipped into a depression that never left her. She cried more, became quieter and more withdrawn.

The next month brought weekly blood transfusions and iron injections, in addition to her chemo. Blood blisters developed in her mouth and on her tongue and lips. When blood began dripping from her nose, Mom wrote it off as a simple nosebleed. When she awoke one morning on a blood soaked pillow, her doctor ordered a platelet transfusion with a warning. “The next time this happens, Ms. Carol,” he said, “get yourself to an emergency room or you could bleed to death.”

Mom bottle feeding newborn kitties

Mom bottle feeding newborn kitties

In mid-April, a blood blister on her right wrist turned into a wound. The wound turned into a sore, the sore a hole. The flesh inside the sore turned black and smelled of dead flesh.

When I came home in late April to take her to appointments with her cancer doctor and a wound specialist, Mom was too weak to walk. I went into the bathroom where she sat. “There’s blood in my urine,” she said. “You know, Michael, this could be it.”

Mom made it to her appointment with the aid of a wheelchair. Blood tests were taken. Dr. Malik confirmed our fears.  “Oh, Ms. Carol,” he said, “your condition has progressed to Acute Myeloid Leukemia. Your white blood count is 280,000. I’m admitting you to the hospital.”

Lying in her hospital bed, Mom was a pitiful sight. Her arms black and blue from a year and a half of chemo and transfusions. Her lips caked with dried blood and sores in her mouth continued bleeding. A bandage protected the horrible sore on her arm. She was pale and weak, struggling to breathe. “I don’t want to die,” she cried. “What will become of my little babies? Gene and Momma need me.”

Mom's Hollywood pose

Mom’s Hollywood pose

Dr. Malik offered another type of treatment, a powerful infusion of chemo. No promises she would live through it, and if she did, she’d be in the hospital for three to four weeks with a poor quality of life.  “It won’t buy you much time,” he said. Mom made the sobering decision. “Dr, Malik, I don’t think I’m going to go through it. I think I’ve had enough.”

Mom went into hospice on Thursday, April 30. Her family never left her side. Before she slipped into the final coma, I said, “Thanks for being my momma. I love you.” “I love you, too.” she said. “Will you watch over me?” I asked. “Yes” she answered.

Charlie and I stayed with her through the night. We talked to her, held her hand. I studied her face as a painter studies his subject, trying to capture in my own mind’s eye the features of that beautiful face that I would soon never see again.

Mom died that morning at 9:50 a.m., May 1, 2015. “Go ahead, Momma, it’s okay,” I cried as she breathed her last. “It’s a beautiful day.” And it was a beautiful spring day. Mom’s suffering was over.

Holding Mom's hand

Holding Mom’s hand at the end


Her memorial service was a celebration of life. I spoke to the room full of Mom’s closest friends. “You’ve heard of Wonder Woman. My Mom was Wonder Woman. She could drive me to school on the back of her motorcycle, do three shampoos and sets in the morning, dig post holes in the afternoon, and make the best spaghetti supper that night.”

Grieving has been hard, my friends. Part of it is wondering how Mom is doing and where she is. The finality of it all is difficult. It’s the phone that never rings, yet I want it to ring with Mom on the other end. Why can’t Mom send a postcard to let me know she made it or send some kind of sign that she is okay.

I turned a corner in my grief about three months after Mom’s death.  I was lying in the floor somewhere between consciousness and sleep. Suddenly, with my eyes closed, Mom appeared. Her face was a younger Mom. Her voice so familiar. “Michael,” she said. “It’s just the way it is.” Then she was gone. I knew then that I was on a journey through grief, that I was not setting up residence there, that perhaps I would one day see a brighter day and not feel such consuming and overwhelming sadness.

As I write this, there is only three months left in 2015. It’s been nine months since Maebelle and Ms. Taylor went to puppy heaven. It’s been five months since Mom left. Life goes on, they say.

I am writing again after a long hiatus. My new book, Hairpins and Dead Ends, is coming along. I’m working on new interviews for this blog.  People ask me how am I doing.  By the grace of God, I am living my 2015 resolution. “I’m surviving,” I say.


Mom's one connection to the silent film era.  Through me, she knew actress Lina Basquette

Mom’s one connection to the silent film era. Through me, she knew actress Lina Basquette.








A Visit to Spahn Movie Ranch

By Michael G. Ankerich

My morbid curiosity is a side of me that most friends and family don’t understand. I simply had no choice, friends!  I grew up watching Dark Shadows, and the first scene from a movie I remember seeing was a decapitated head rolling down the stairs in Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte. I remember burying my head into my mother’s lap and not coming up until “The End.”

I’d rather see low-budget movies (just watched The Town that Dreaded Sundown for the fourth or fifth time) about hauntings and serial killers than comedy or the commercially popular latest and greatest epic.

The really fun part is when it spills over into real life.  I love hanging out in cemeteries and going to those places where creepy and bizarre things happened. On my first trip to Los Angeles, back in the 1980s, one of the first places I asked to visit was Cielo Drive, where Sharon Tate and friends were murdered in 1969. On my next venture west, I found the La Bianca murder house.

You cannot imagine the disappointment when I trekked to the corner of Alvarado and Maryland in Hollywood only to find the courtyard apartment where William Desmond Taylor was murdered in 1922 was a parking lot. Or, when I went to the apartment house where Marie Prevost died and was unable to go inside.  We learn to live with life’s little disappointments.

High on my list was the site of Spahn Ranch, which had once been a 500-acre movie ranch for filming Westerns and numerous television programs.

Spahn Ranch in the day

Spahn Ranch in the day

You know the story. By the late 1960s, little filming was actually done on the desolate property in the Simi Hills and Santa Susana Mountains above Chatsworth. Its owner, 80-year-old George Spahn, blind and ailing, now used the ranch for horse rentals.

It was in 1968 that Charles Manson and his followers, “The Family,” came to live at the ranch.  Spahn allowed them to stay rent free as long as they help out with chores. This abandoned, isolated ranch, 20 miles from Los Angeles, became the primary residence of Manson and the Family during the time they committed the Tate-LaBianca murders until Manson’s arrest in 1969 during a raid on the property.

The dilapidated buildings of Spahn Ranch burned to the ground in 1970. Mother nature reclaimed the property. It eventually became part of Santa Susana Pass State Historic Park.

On previous trips to LA, when I was traveling alone, I had been reluctant to explore the area. It was not on any tourist map, and I frankly was not excited about stepping on rattlesnakes or getting lost in the wilderness.

In October 2014, Charlie came with me. I was in LA for the second time. The first time was in the spring when I flew out to film an episode of The Ghost Inside My Child.

Charlie and Michael high above Hollywood

Charlie and Michael high above Hollywood

Garage where Thelma Todd was found dead

Now, I’ve coaxed Charlie into experiencing some rather wild adventures over our 23 years together, but I don’t think he took seriously my idea of visiting Spahn Ranch on this trip. When we left Hollywood for the coast that morning, just days before Halloween, I had the ranch on my radar for the afternoon.

On our way to Malibu, we stopped in Pacific Palisades and located the garage where Thelma Todd was found dead way back in 1935.

Later that morning, we hiked in Malibu Canyon and rested at the site where they filmed the exteriors for M*A*S*H.  After lunch at Duke’s on the coast in Malibu, we turned inland on Topanga Canyon Blvd. for the Valley.

As we neared Chatsworth, the terrain turned mountainous and rocky. Right before we reached Ronald Reagan Parkway,  we turned left onto Santa Susana Pass Road and headed west.  When we got to Iverson Road, I knew we were there. I looked to the left. Nothing to indicate it was Spahn Ranch. We turned right onto Iverson. Just ahead, we pulled into the parking lot at Church at Rock Peak. Leaving the car, we set out on foot, back down Iverson toward Santa Susana. Just passed the guardrail, we skidded down a bank and found ourselves in brush and brambles.



Spahn Ranch, then and now

Spahn Ranch, then and now

As the shadows grew longer in the waning light, I led Charlie down a trail toward the dry creek bed. It had to be here.  But where? At one point, the bed was at the bottom of a gully.  I had no choice but to go down and explore. Charlie said he’d wait on me. If I found what I was looking for, holler for him.

Clinging onto a branch, I lowered myself down toward the creek bed. When I let go, the leaves and loose rocks sent my feet out from under me (maybe the wine from Dukes had something to do with my unsteadiness).

I tumbled to the bottom, scrapping my shine and breaking the arm of a pair of Revos on the way down.

Scrapes and bruises, but no broken bones

Scrapes and bruises, but no broken bones

So overgrown with vines and limbs was the area, there was no way to travel along the creek. I carefully pulled myself out of the ravine and met Charlie back on the trail.

Daylight was fading, but not my determination. We walked back toward the road and took another trail that led down into the creek bed. Then it came into view, the cave where the Manson family took their now infamous photo.

The Cave, then and now

The Cave, then and now

It felt creepy being there, that’s about the best way I can describe it. Although decades had passed since the horrible crimes, a sense of evil still hung in the air like a fog. It was time to go.

On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at Iliad Books in North Hollywood — one of my favorite haunts, then had dinner in Studio City at Vitello’s Italian Restaurant. After we turned over the car to the valet, I motioned for Charlie to follow me around the corner from the entrance to the restaurant.

“You know what happened here, don’t you?  As I figure it, it happened right about there.”

“No, what happened here,” he asked reluctantly.

“This is the place where Robert Blake’s wife, Bonnie Lee Bakely, was shot to death while she waited for Blake, who had supposedly returned to the restaurant to retrieve a gun he had left behind.  Interesting, huh?”

Charlie had had enough.  “Come on, I’m hungry.”

My own directions to Spahn Ranch

In the event that you have an afternoon to spare and want to make your own visit to the site of Spahn Movie Ranch, follow my directions.

  • Type 22601 Santa Susana Pass Road into your GPS. That will get you close to the ranch.
  • Be careful if you park alongside the road.  Better yet, park discretely in the church parking lot (Church at Rock Peak).
  • Back on Santa Susana Pass Road, walk to the end of the white guardrail.
  • Leave the road and follow the trail into the brush.  You’re there! Now, explore. Be careful.  Watch for rattlesnakes.


Spahn Ranch, a bird's eye view

Spahn Ranch, a bird’s eye view


Your map to Spahn Ranch

Your map to Spahn Ranch





Jean Sothern: Her Strange Case of Mistaken Identity

By Michael G. Ankerich

Jean Sothern was beyond pissed; she was fit to be tied.  In the summer of 1921, the actress, no longer in films, was entertaining her fans in vaudeville houses around the country. Everywhere she went, they were the same questions. What is your connection to Beverly Chew, the Army captain, and his wife, the couple being investigated for forgery? Are you, as the headlines imply, married to Mr. Chew?

They were fair questions to ask. Beverly Chew and his wife were caught in the middle of an investigation that made national headlines for weeks. The worst part, Chew’s wife was identifying herself as film and stage actress Jean Sothern.

Here’s a sampling of the headlines:

Chew’s Wife an Actress

Jean Sothern is Identified as Wife of Chew

Mistaken Identity Figures in Chew Case

The 28-year-old actress who had worked hard to built a reputation and name for herself wanted to know what in the hell was going on.

“I am awfully mad,” she told the press at the time. “All my friends have been telephoning me and asking me if I am Captain Chew’s wife. My booking office called me up. Why, everybody knows that I have never been married. I never have been engaged and I never expect to be. I never heard of Captain Chew in my life. No person who ever saw me mistook me for another woman.”

Jean Sothern

Jean Sothern

During Chew’s court marshal on Governor’s Island in New York, Jean was eager to set the record straight. She showed scrapbooks of newspaper clippings and photographs from her films.

“I am the Jean Sothern who is the motion picture star. I am indignant that another woman should use my name for any purpose. This thing has gone far enough,” she told reporters.

Director Herbert Brenon testified that Jean had entered films when he hired her for a major role in The Two Orphans with Theda Bara and that she was not the wife of the accused.

When the waters cleared, Marjorie “Daisy” Brennan, whose father invented the bicycle carousel, was identified as the real Mrs. Beverly Chew. Taking the name Jean Sothern, Daisy apparently started in show business a decade before on the stage before making a few films in 1919 for Colorgraph Films in Arizona.

In July 1921, Chew was found guilty and sentenced to seven years — he served about a year and a half. Mrs. Chew was acquitted. In January 1924, she succumbed to the cancer she had fought for over three years. Variety reported her death under the name Jean Sothern. Further confusion!jean5

The mistaken identity plagued the real Jean Sothern for the rest of her life. Many assumed the actress who had starred in about a dozen films for Fox, Imp, and Pathe had died in 1924. At least two film references, Who Was Who on Screen (Truitt) and Who’s Who in Hollywood (Ragan), give 1924 as the death year of the actress. As of December 2014, the web site International Movie Database states that Jean Sothern, known for A Mute Appeal (1917), The Mysteries of Myra (1916) and The Cloud (1917) died in 1924 and was the wife of Beverly Chew.

PeScreen Shot 2014-12-05 at 8.31.59 AMrhaps Jean Sothern had the last laugh.  She lived another 40 years.

Sadly, few have taken the time to explore and get to know the real Jean Sothern, dainty star of the silent screen. The time has come. Here’s her story.

Jean Sothern was born Grace R. Bomberger on December 5, 1893, in  Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She was the only child born to William and Olivia (Eshleman) Bomberger.

By the time she was 15 and a sophomore in Coatesville High School, Grace was entertaining delighted audiences with her singing in neighboring towns. In 1909, the Philadelphia Inquirer lauded praise on the young entertainer, noting her “voice of great range and purity, besides which she plays both the piano and violin with considerable skill, and has exceptional ability as an elocutionist.”


Edwin Liebman, orchestra leader for Loew’s America in New York City, and his family took Grace under their wing. The Liebmans “adopted” Grace. In interviews about her life, she often referred to Edwin Liebman as her father.Screen Shot 2014-12-05 at 9.02.21 AM

For a short time, she used Esther Robinson as her professional name — Robinson was the maiden name of her father’s mother. Theatrical manager Arthur Blondell gave her the name Gene Southern, which she changed to Jean Sothern.

By 1914, she had developed a stage act for Loew’s circuit. A little over five feet tall, Grace was billed as the Little Dynamo of Personality.

A stroke of fortune came to Jean when director Herbert Brenon hired her to appear as the blind orphan with Theda Bara in The Two Orphans (1915) — later remade as Orphans of the Storm.

Jean played the blind orphan in The Two Orphans

Jean (center) played the blind orphan in The Two Orphans

On the merits of that film, Jean was selected to play the title role in The Mysteries of Myra, a 17-chapter serial that tells the story of  Myra Maynard, the daughter of an Occult leader, who is repeatedly hunted by her dead father’s devil-worshipping Order. (See the lost trailer for Mysteries of Myra.)

Jean in The Mysteries of Myra

Jean in The Mysteries of Myra

Screen Shot 2014-12-05 at 8.43.01 AMThe authors of the series, Hereward Carrington and Charles Goddard, were said to have conducted a number of psychological tests on actresses testing for the part. They selected Jean because of her “extraordinary mental powers,” feeling that the leading lady “must be capable of portraying the emotions of one subject to the compelling influences of a superior will. She must have grace, poise and a personality which will actually reach out from the screen, take possession of the people and make them instinctively, irresistibly respond to each impulse and thrill with every emotion which the star experiences.”

Although the series was widely popular and made little Jean a star, she never wanted  to make another serial.  “I don’t like serials,” she said later. “There must be some sort of climax in each episode — a jump off the mountains or a fall into the river, and honest I had to be pushed off when I fell in the East River in one of the episodes.”

The actress stuck to feature films. In 1917, Jean contracted with Van Dyke Film Production Company. In rapid succession, she starred in Her Good Name, The Cloud,  A Mother’s Ordeal (in the roles of the mother and daughter), A Mute Appeal, and Miss Deception, all 1917 releases. She made her final film in 1918, Peg o’ the Sea.

Jean as she appeared in Peg 'o the Sea

Jean as she appeared in Peg ‘o the Sea

The actress devoted herself to the war effort.  She sold war bonds from the Liberty Bond booth at Penn station in New York.

By the late 1910s, Jean Sothern had acquired a legion of fans, who were saddened to read in the magazines that she had married a U.S. Army officer and was living at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Jean was quick to deny the rumor. Little did she know, this was the first incidence of mistaken identity that would explode in the papers four years later.

Jean in The Cloud

Jean in The Cloud

With no film work in sight, Jean put together a vaudeville act and hit the road to meet her public.  She was asked about her personal life and the decision she made to bob her flowing blonde locks.

“That was really ugly of me and you tell the other girls not to do it,” she told a reporter in 1919. “I had my curls in The Two Orphans and all the papers wrote afterwards of them being like Mary Pickford’s, as though nobody could have any curls but her. So one day I slipped away and cut mine off. My friends wouldn’t speak to me for two days. When I appeared at Birmingham, Alabama,  seven girls bobbed their hair like mine, and then I was sorry. Mine have grown out now and I’m glad. I’ll never be so foolish again.”

An exhausted and travel weary Jean Sothern arrived in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in April 1919, around 1 in the morning. The next day, a reporter questioned her about films and stage work. Did she have a preference?

Jean didn’t hesitate. She preferred films because she could live in her family home in New York, not in cold and drafty hotel rooms in unfamiliar cities. “I love to clean house, to sweep and to get in the dirt and scrub — but I can’t cook,” she revealed. “I hate to travel. I love a home, and do tell the girls for me, especially those who think it would be nice to be a movie actress, that really and truly the nicest thing girls can do, I believe, is to grow up and get married and have babies. I just know that movie life is hard and, in vaudeville, the most unpleasant part is the traveling.”Screen Shot 2014-12-06 at 3.41.44 PM

The most bizarre part of her travels came in 1921, less than a month before her name was linked with the other Jean Sothern and Captain Beverly Chew. When she arrived in New Orleans in May, Jean visited Matilda Levee in prison. Mrs. Levee was behind bars for murdering her husband, Fred Levee, the prominent New Orleans and Los Angeles attorney.  Jean interviewed the woman and wrote a lengthy story about the case for the local newspaper.

With little problem, Jean weathered the debacle over being mistaken for the wife of Beverly Chew. By the time the obituary of Chew’s wife appeared in Variety, Jean was entertaining audiences with a new vaudeville act: Girls Will be Boys. The show promised a “bit of femininity with a masculine twist.”

Jean was a hit.  One Oregon newspaper wrote in  January 1924, “She is a true comedienne and even her eyes talk. She dons boy’s apparel and is a real boy, once as a swaggering, boastful sailor, once as a scared-to-death hayseed, and again as a dashing, man-about-town. The audience loved Jean’s honesty and gifts and her personality cut a deep dent.”

Jean in the mid-1930s

Jean in the mid-1930s

In 1930, Jean embarked on a new adventure: radio.  Without revealing her true identity and vast experience in entertainment, she requested an audition with the Columbia Broadcasting network.  She provided  three or four versions of her act and spoke in some of the dialects she had perfected. The organization wisely grabbed her up.

Jean Sothern found her home in radio. She played the role of Edie Gray in the popular NBC serial Pepper Young’s Family.

She became an animal dialogue expert and provided Dutch, Irish, French, Southern dialects when needed.  She was once referred to as the “most versatile actress in radio.” Although she is credited with playing the role of a waitress in Down the Wyoming Trail (1939), after watching the film, I question whether the actress is the Jean Sothern of the silent screen.

Jean eventually returned to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where she died of throat cancer on April 14, 1964. She is buried at Octorana Church Cemetery in Parksburg, Pennsylvania.


Screen Shot 2014-12-07 at 2.39.46 PM

Jean Sothern's final resting place

Jean Sothern’s final resting place



Interview: William J. Mann tackles murder, morphine, and madness in Tinseltown

Interview by Michael G. Ankerich


William J. Mann serves up a delicious plate of M’s in his new book, Tinseltown.

Mary, Mabel, and Margaret.

Murder, Mystery, and Madness.

Mary and Momma.

I devoured every morsel of the buffet.

The unsolved murder of director William Desmond Taylor in 1922 is one of the reasons I stepped back into the silent film era — and stayed! It’s the classic whodunit.

Screen Shot 2014-10-12 at 3.17.09 PM


Who did it? Was it Mary Miles Minter? Mabel Normand? Charlotte Shelby, Mary’s mother? Starlet Margaret Gibson? His valet? Drug dealers? Gangsters?

Bill Mann, one of my favorite authors of old Hollywood, thinks he has solved the mystery.  You’re going to have fun with this one, friends! Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood reads like a novel, yet the dialogue is not drawn from the author’s imagination. The words between the quotation marks came from the mouths of those who spoke them.

Screen Shot 2014-10-12 at 3.41.06 PM

Bill reconstructs the riveting case using primary sources — including witness testimonies from police records, coroner’s inquest files, newly uncovered FBI records, and court records and transcripts.

Running alongside the murder mystery are complex and interesting portraits of legends like Adolph Zukor and Will Hays, the first czar of Hollywood.

So who killed William Desmond Taylor?  Listen in on my conversation with Bill and find out.

My collection of William J. Mann books

My collection of William J. Mann books


Michael: I first started reading your books in the 1990s.  I must have read The Men From the Boys when I was coming out or shortly after. Then I read your novel around the “afterlife” of Florence Lawrence. Two of my favorites are your William Haines biography and Behind the Screen, about gays and lesbians in Hollywood. I’m intrigued by your body of work and the range you’ve covered. Most writers find an era or genre, but you’re all over the place.  What do you look for you when you’re selecting a subject to write about?

Bill: It’s always about the story. Is it a good, compelling story? Can I say something new? I think being a novelist helped me discern the story within a life or within a topic. For example, when my editor wanted me to write about Streisand, I was reluctant. Not really my thing. But when he suggested we call it “Becoming Barbra” that hooked me — because I could see the story, of an unknown, unlikely kid becoming a huge star in just five years time. So it’s always Story, Story, Story for me.

Hello, Gorgeous

Hello, Gorgeous

Michael: So let’s talk about Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood. After over 92 years of wondering, do you really think you’ve solved the mystery of who murdered William Desmond Taylor?

Bill: Would my evidence stand up in a court of law? I don’t know. After nearly a century, so much of the evidence I present is necessarily circumstantial, since so much physical evidence is gone. I was fortunate to find FBI records —not on the Taylor case per se, but on some of the figures around him, which helped me to draw some key conclusions. Also, the fact that so many newspapers are now digitized I was able to find proverbial needles in the haystack that allowed me to make connections. There will be people who disagree with my conclusion, and that’s okay. I have always said that I submit Tinseltown into the lore of “Taylorology” and will let people draw their own conclusions. No one really wants cold cases solved. That strips away so much of the fun for armchair detectives. There was a lot of pushback to the recent claims that the identity of Jack the Ripper was discovered. But I do think that my solution is the only one that doesn’t contradict other available evidence and the only one based on surviving documental evidence, even if it’s circumstantial. That’s really important—to show where and how you drew your conclusions. I have got something like 800 footnotes and will be posting a lot of the primary documents I used on Taylorology, courtesy of the really brilliant Bruce Long, who more than anyone has kept the taylor case alive.

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Michael: In the history of Hollywood, has there ever been anything like the murder of a leading director, a mystery that has gone unsolved for so long?  The one that comes to mind is the mystery around the death of Thelma Todd.

Bill: I am very intrigued by the Todd case, but even that wasn’t as huge as the Taylor case. The reasons are a few: one, Taylor was really very prominent, a key figure high in the industry with the support of bigwigs like Zukor and Lasky. Two, the scandal ensnared so many other leading figures in the industry. Three, and most important, it occurred right at the moment when the stakes were so high for the film industry, when not only the threats of bad publicity and censorship hung over the movies but also federal regulation. That’s why it was so important to contain the fallout from all the scandals of the 1920-1923 period, and Taylor’s death was, in my opinion, chief among them.

Michael: Why are we still interested in a story that happened so long ago?

Bill: I think we’ll never tire of whodunits. And the characters in this story are just so complex and fascinating. Mabel Normand—I fell in love with her. So strong, so resilient, so full of integrity, so ahead of her time. Mary Miles Minter, so young, so deluded, so abused, so tragic. Margaret Gibson, so determined, so ambitious, so cunning. And Adolph Zukor— he created the movies as we know them, and he always so desperate not to lose everything and go back to being penniless and irrelevant. Will Hays, too, really fascinated me. Hardly the prude and puritan he’s long been considered, he was actually quite pragmatic, progressive, and nonjudgmental.

Mabel Normand

Mabel Normand


Mary Miles Minter signed this photo to "My Mammy"

Mary Miles Minter signed this photo to “My Mammy”

Margaret Gibson / Patricia Palmer

Margaret Gibson / Patricia Palmer

Michael: How hard was it to sell this type of idea to your agent / publisher?

Bill: I thought it might be terribly difficult. After chronicling three huge names — Hepburn, Taylor, Streisand — this was a bit of a departure and I know how publishing works. They always want an easy sell. So I worked on the idea for several years before I sold it. I’d stay up at night when I was tired of writing about divas all day. In that way, I had the story all fleshed out, and to my great surprise and pleasure, we had several editors bidding when we finally offered it. The editor I ended up with, Cal Morgan, at HarperCollins, is a real advocate of early film studies and popular culture histories. He’s been fantastic.

Mary Miles Minter and her mother, Charlotte Shelby

Mary Miles Minter and her mother, Charlotte Shelby

Michael: When I interviewed those still left from the silent film era, most believed that Taylor’s murderer was Charlotte Shelby, the mother of actress Mary Miles Minter. She was an easy scapegoat, not the most loved in Tinseltown. It doesn’t sound like, after reading Tinseltown, that Mary ever referred to her mother as Mommie Dearest. In the long line of stage mothers, was she really that bad? Does she get a bad rap from film historians?

Bill: I think she was pretty monstrous to Mary. Some of the things I write about in Tinseltown—like burning Mary’s doll when she was a child—are just shattering.

Mamma and Mary

Mamma and Mary

But I think we also have to respect her professionally. Pretty much all on her own, Shelby took on the system and won—a rare example of a woman succeeding in an industry dominated by men, and winning on her own terms at that. A strong, forceful woman is always going to attract more enemies than a strong, forceful man.

Michael: The murder of Taylor impacted so many lives. Besides the obvious, Taylor himself, who, in your opinion, ended up the biggest loser in the whole Taylor murder saga? How and why?

Bill: Well, so many suffered, but I would say it was Mary who really ended most tragically. Obsessive, a bit of a manic-depressive, terribly self-absorbed and delusional— but after her horrible childhood and the abuse she endured in the press, you can understand how she ended up that way. Her life after Hollywood was so sad. Taylor’s death followed her right until the end of her life.

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Michael: Another intriguing part of Tinseltown revolves around censorship and the influence of the religious right on the film industry during those days.  It seems that, every so often, this influential group latches onto a cause and creates headlines. I think of abortion and gay rights in our day, but in the early 1920s, it was the content of movies, movie stars, and bathtub gin, wasn’t it?

Bill: In many ways, Hollywood of 1922 reminded me so much of Hollywood in 2014. Stars becoming better known for off-screen exploits than their on-screen work; religious conservatives were decrying “Hollywood values” and the effect they were having on the nation; companies were buying each other up; and the government was trying to get a cut from all that cash. I think the reformers who were trying to censor movie content and censure star behavior recognized the secular, modern world that Hollywood was creating, and they were trying to stop it. Of course, the influence of the movies couldn’t be stopped. So much of the public in those pre-mass-market days hadn’t seen beyond their local communities. But Hollywood opened a window for them and after seeing the big wide world, they weren’t ever going back to more provincial views. I think an analogy can be made to movements today that are trying similarly to stuff the genie back into the bottle. Just ain’t gonna happen.

Michael: I want to touch on several of your other books. Was How to be a Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood the first biography that you wrote about a living person? How does that compare to writing about someone, say William Haines, who had already lived their life?

Bill: With Elizabeth, her people—her friends and family—were very cordial about me writing the book; some spoke to me; some did not. But Elizabeth was too ill at that point to cooperate. It does make it more sensitive writing about someone who’s still alive. Part of the reason I loved researching and writing Tinseltown was because I did not have to beg or cajole anyone to talk to me. They were all dead.

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Michael: I thoroughly enjoyed The Biograph Girl: A Novel of Hollywood Then and Now, which has Florence Lawrence, filmdom’s first movie star, who supposedly died in 1938, still alive at 106. Where did your inspiration for that book come from?

Bill: It was just a wild idea I had one day. Florence Lawrence had always fascinated me. She was so huge, so adored—and then so utterly forgotten. She had started this whole crazy business of stars and celebrity — well, with some help from Carl Laemmle who rigged up the first movie-star publicity stunts for her. I just felt she ought to get one more shot at fame.

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Michael: You dedicated The Biograph Girl to your mother and father who bought you your first typewriter when you were only nine. Were you writing then and how influential were they in your development as a writer?

Bill: I absolutely was writing then, back in those prehistoric days before computers. I thought a typewritten set of pages would look more like a “real book” than all the ones I’d been writing out in pen. My Mom and Dad absolutely loved that I became a writer. My Dad passed away last year but he would read every volume and ask lots of questions afterward. I just gave my Mom Tinseltown. At 88, she was insistent that all this was “before her time.”

Michael: You always credit your husband, Tim Huber, in your work. How interested is he in old Hollywood?  Does he share your interest?

Bill: He loves it through me. After 26 years together, he’s seen enough classic Hollywood films with me to know quite a bit. But every once in a while, while we’re flicking through Netflix, he’ll say, “Can’t we watch something from this century this time?”

Michael: How and when did you first become interested in Hollywood of the silent film era? Were there writers whose books inspired you back then? Who and which ones?

Bill: When I was a kid, those of us who loved silent film and early sound film really struggled to find anything to increase our knowledge about these wonderful movies, which were almost completely inaccessible. So I devoured the books of Kevin Brownlow and Anthony Slide. I was also really fascinated with the very early films, and had a correspondence with Charles Musser, whose research into the nickelodeon era was so groundbreaking. I remember him being surprised that this teenager was so interested in Edwin S. Porter and Georges Melies!

William J. Mann

Keep track of William J. Mann through his website,

Michael: What’s next for you? Are there any projects in the works that you can tell us about?

Bill: My next book is my first non-Hollywood project. It’s called Alice & Eleanor: The Wars of the Roosevelts, about the rivalry between those two first cousins, one Republican, one Democrat, one beautiful, one plain, one gregarious, one shy—and both brilliant. But what I’m discovering is that Washington and Hollywood aren’t really all that different. They’re both about the creation and merchandizing of public images. That book will be out in 2016, hopefully in time for the presidential campaign.

* * *

Bill and I never got around to discussing who committed the murder.  That, my friends, is up to you to discover for yourselves!

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Can we tawk? Missing Joan

No one cracked me up like Joan Rivers, unless it was Carol Burnett and Vicki Lawrence as Eunice and Mama.

Back in the mid-1980s, when I could still stay up until 11:30 without taking an afternoon nap, I would catch Joan on The Tonight Show. Never cared much for Carson, but Joan made me lose my breath. I loved the jokes about slutty women — “Her thighs have landing lights”– and her sex life, which she said had dwindled to leaning against the washing machine on spin cycle.

I met Joan briefly several years ago when I was in San Francisco researching Dangerous Curves Atop Hollywood Heels. We passed each other on Castro Street. I realized the tiny blonde woman in big movie star shades was Joan Rivers. I turned around, followed her to the corner, and chatted with her while we waited for the light to change.

Many years before our brief encounter, I sent Joan an index card and asked her to autograph it and provide me a print of her lips, not knowing whether she could keep them still long enough to press them to the paper.  She did!

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I’m really going to miss this comic legend with the cutting tongue.  Give yourself a laugh this morning. Check out this monologue from 1984. Wherever Joan is today, I hope she’s lying on her back and seeing more ceilings than Michelangelo.


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Maurine Powers, “daughter” of Zorro, update

Several updates to my recent post, Maurine Powers: How the actress became Zorro’s daughter, that I had to share with you.

On my recent to trip to Los Angeles, I found a nice autographed portrait of Maurine. “To Rutgers, with best wishes, from Maurine.”

Maurine Powers autographed portrait

Maurine Powers autographed portrait

Also, after reading my post, photographer Jeremiah Ellsworth sent several photographs of a Maurine (Powers) McCulley painting that he purchased in Arizona. Have a look at his painting and check out Jeremiah’s website.

Painting by Maurine Powers

Painting by Maurine Powers


Portrait signed by Maurine McCulley

Portrait signed by Maurine McCulley


Thanks, Jeremiah! It’s super knowing that Maurine’s work is still being enjoyed and appreciated!